In praise of porridge: Cooks and cafes embrace oats as winter sets in

Porridge with stewed apples and brown sugar at Gypsy Espresso, Potts Point.
Porridge with stewed apples and brown sugar at Gypsy Espresso, Potts Point. Photo: Louise Kennerley

Meteorologists may call it "winter" but cooks and food lovers know differently: "porridge season" has set in.

"As soon as the weather gets slightly cool, people ask immediately for porridge, and they will leave if you don't have it," says Dominique Gattermayr, co-owner of Melbourne's Florian in Carlton North.

Food stylist, recipe developer and porridge fanatic Caroline Velik cooking oats in her Melbourne home kitchen.
Food stylist, recipe developer and porridge fanatic Caroline Velik cooking oats in her Melbourne home kitchen. Photo: Simon Schluter

Gattermayr's team embraces the passion. "We like it," she says. "Oats are healthy and it says a lot about how much people care about food and especially the food that brings them comfort."

In Sydney, chef Francis Simeon wasn't a porridge guy before he started at Gypsy Espresso in Potts Point five years ago.

"I am from the Philippines so I was more into congee," he says, rhapsodising about slow-cooked savoury rice porridge. Simeon has come to appreciate the humble pleasures of oats though.

I think anyone who doesn't like it just hasn't had good porridge yet.

Dominique Gattermayr, Florian

"Porridge is simple and comforting," he says. He gently stirs oats to order with a choice of milk – macadamia, almond, oat, soy and skim are all on offer alongside regular full-cream dairy – and tops them with stewed Granny Smith apples and brown sugar.

"We don't complicate it, we just do it perfectly," says Simeon. "People tell me they like it, that it brings them comfort."

But is porridge universally comforting? "It reminds me of my mum, family, being cosy and feeling at home," Gattermayr says.

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"But we know that a lot of people have a weird association with porridge, maybe from boarding school. They remember sludge and coldness.

"I think anyone who doesn't like it just hasn't had good porridge yet. We love to turn them around and inspire people back on the porridge bandwagon."

At Florian, the lure is a base of cinnamon-stewed apples topped with steel-cut oats cooked in oat milk.

Customer Sophia Ndaba warms up with porridge at Gypsy Espresso.
Customer Sophia Ndaba warms up with porridge at Gypsy Espresso. Photo: Louise Kennerley

"Steel-cut oats have more bite and texture because they aren't rolled," says Gattermayr. The porridge is topped with warmed quinces, brown butter and walnut crumb, and a drizzle of maple syrup.

"Porridge is also a good way for people to try a new fruit," she says. "A lot of people don't know about quince and what it looks like so it's educational as well."

Food stylist and recipe developer Caroline Velik has seen her long-standing appreciation of porridge turn into something of an obsession.

Caroline Velik is the fourth best porridge-maker in the world, based on last year's Golden Spurtle results.
Caroline Velik is the fourth best porridge-maker in the world, based on last year's Golden Spurtle results. Photo: Simon Schluter

Last year, Velik entered the World Porridge Making Championship in Carrbridge, Scotland, placing fourth with a steamed oat porridge featuring quandong, mango, honey-roasted macadamias, finger lime, bush honey and native mint.

The 2021 "Golden Spurtle" (so named for a wooden oat-stirring paddle made specifically for porridge) was virtual. This year, Velik will attend the October contest in person and she is deep in the throes of recipe creation.

"I am trying lots of different things," she says. "Soaking then cooking them for different lengths of time changes the texture and the flavour."

Velik is going classic – using saucepan, stove and spurtle – and also trying modern steam-oven baked oats. "They are fluffy," she says. "Baked oats are having a moment."

Then it's all about the toppings. "Porridge is a delicious blank canvas for so many flavour combinations," she says. Recent creations include oats with homemade ricotta and stewed rhubarb, and a savoury congee-like version with minced ginger, miso and sesame seeds.

"Historically in Scotland, porridge was savoury, made just with butter and salt," she says.

Porridge was also made ahead in large quantities and tipped into a special drawer where it would be left for days to be sliced off, wrapped in cloth and taken as a packed lunch. As the porridge cooled, babies were often nestled in the drawer above to keep them warm.

Velik lacks a porridge drawer but she does consider porridge an adjunct to other forms of heating. "At the moment, it's cheaper to keep warm by eating porridge than using gas or electricity," she says.

She also notes a porridge resurgence over the past two years of lockdowns and working from home. "People have had time in the morning," says Velik. "There was an interest in cooking again."

If porridge confidence is still elusive, she has some tips. "Just start," she says. "Instant oats are fine, even a sachet, and there's no shame in using a microwave. It's fast, it's convenient. Then you can progress to good quality rolled oats in a pot on the stove." Even without a spurtle?

"Yes, definitely," she says. "The world needs more spurtles but you can use a normal spoon or even a silicon spatula. It can be as simple or as complicated as you make it. You can't really go wrong with porridge."